Upon researching, thinking, and writing the article,”The Four Levels of Innovation,” published in the recent issue of the Graziadio Business Review, it has become apparent to me that innovation is not a singularly defined topic that can be easily explained by people even though the formal definition is quite short and clear. The Webster’s II New Riverside University dictionary (copyright 1988) defines innovate as, “To start or introduce something new; be creative.” Whereas the definition of innovation is: “1) The act of innovating, or 2) Something new or unusual.” On top of this, the word invent or invention is often used interchangeably with innovate/innovation. Webster’s II defines the word invent as, “To produce or contrive (something previously unknown) by the use of ingenuity or imagination.” The word invention is defined as, “A new method, device, or process developed from study and experimentation.” Different definitions have been developed by individuals or organizations that separate the two words even though they are clearly similar as defined by the dictionary.
In my opinion, the ways in which these two words are used separately in business is that invention is an activity done in the laboratory without a clear path for creating revenue. Innovation, on the other hand, is used to describe a new idea that can generate income. Crudely put, an inventor can create new products that not everybody will want, but an innovator creates products that people desire. Obviously, this is a simplistic example of the different definitions people assign to these words, but my main point is that businesses often attempt to create distinctions in concepts in order to achieve their end goal of creating profit and keeping people focused. The image of an inventor in a lab conjuring up peculiar devices and potentially wasting money is balanced by the image of an innovator as a high-technology professional who is working hard to create better products that everybody wants or needs. This distinction in definitions is not supported by dictionary definitions, but the mere fact that companies create a divide can cause employee confusion, distrust, and a lack of motivation.
The implication is that a poor thinker will waste money and a great thinker will save the company. In the end, I believe it is more important to embrace the idea that many employees are capable of creating new ideas that can add revenue to a company. Poor definitions that divide a company into distinct groups can cloud the end goal of keeping the business growing. I touched on this topic briefly in the article, noting that it is essential to set up a creative environment to foster idea generation if you want your company to be successful in innovation.
How do you define innovation and invention?
I encourage you to take a minute and submit your definitions in the comment field below. Now ask yourself, are your definitions all-purpose, such as in the dictionary, or are they more complex and unique to your organization? Do the definitions in your organization change for different management levels in the company? How do you define success with new products? Do you focus on creating products that people have indicated they want or products that people don’t expect?
My goal in asking these questions is to improve the process by which companies prepare for, create, and develop new products. By understanding the definitions, you are thereby defining the end goal. Once you have established this, you can begin to chart your company’s path toward successful innovation.